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Extended Interview with the 18th Rector

This is the full text of the interview with Trinity Wall Street’s Rector-Elect, the Rev. Dr. Bill Lupfer, who spoke with Senior Video Producer Jim Melchiorre on June 30, 2014 at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland where Dr. Lupfer had served as Dean for eleven years.

You mention that you like to talk about your congregation here in Portland. So tell me about the people at the Trinity Episcopal Cathedral.

The folks here at the cathedral are very smart, they’re very committed, and they’re focused in their ministries, but they’re also very human, and they’re strong personalities. So you put that together and it’s a wonderful combination. I love to read what they’re reading; it gives me a big reading list. I have 88 books in my iPad right now. So they’re wonderful, and they’re interesting. 

The other thing about the folks here in Portland at the cathedral is they value autonomy, and they follow through on what they do, what they say they’ll do, and they link in ways that are really interesting. They don’t come together in ways that people in the Midwest or East do. They come together in ways that are sort of different and unique, and so they always surprise me. They always find new ways of moving forward. So I love to watch them work and see what they’ll do next. 

What is your leadership style?    

My leadership style is to do the vision work early, and to build strong vision parameters: to get clear about the purpose of what we’re going to do in this task, and where those parameters are, and what the vision is, and to discuss that strongly and thoroughly early on, and then let people go and see what they come up with to build a safe way to be playful—purposefully playful. Then I come in and brainstorm with them. But they do a lot of the work themselves, and when they finish, they know they’ve done it for themselves. 

You call it “outreach” at Trinity Cathedral; Trinity Wall Street calls it “Faith in Action.” How has that aspect of church life informed your theology? 

I think it happened early on for me in my prison ministry. I had a spiritual director at the time who challenged me to see every person I served as the face of Christ. Looking at people in that way, as having a capacity to reveal Christ to me, without judging them first, let me become curious and interested in them. So it became a mutual relationship early on rather than me helping the poor, or an addict. They had as much to teach me. And so I’ve tried to infuse that here, and I see that in our people who work here. They are serving Christ, and looking for Christ, even as people are coming to the door hungry. One of the ways we do that is we try to build a place that looks like home to people who are homeless, either spiritually or physically, so that they’ll come here and find home. That’s a key part of our stewardship: building a place that looks like home to people who are spiritually homeless. 

Your congregation serves a hot lunch to about 500 people every Wednesday and one of your staff members told me yesterday that you all believe that to whom much has been given, much is expected. How does that idea affect and drive the work you do?   

I think there’s more to it than that. I think it’s a real creative process, and we say creativity leads to the creator. Creativity is a pathway to the creator. So this is a broad-based project of creativity. We have people who go and glean, they’ll go to Starbucks, or to Phil’s Meat Market, or to the hospital, and bring food in that’s still healthy, and still usable, but can no longer be sold. The business gets a tax write-off, we get the food. On Tuesday our chefs start talking about what food is available, and how can they create a healthy, low-carb, high-protein meal for the guests the next day. Sometimes they have three or four menus. They’ll cook four different meals depending on the amounts of food that we have, and the amount of people who are coming. It’s a creative process involving as many as 80 people. 

How do you see the role of the church in addressing economic inequality?    

What we say here [at Trinity Cathedral] is that we are the hands and feet of Christ in the world. And so we want to go meet the people who are suffering from the injustice. A lot of the injustice in Portland manifests itself in food insecurity. So we have a lot of feeding ministries here. I think we have seven. We always do that with partners and, after that initial experience of being the hands and feet of Christ, then we study [what happened]. Then we talk about it. Then we bring in the stories from the people we serve and begin to look at the bigger issues, the systemic issues that drive [injustice]. So we go from a direct personal encounter first, to the person in need, to the theological and political reasons for [the injustice], and then what we might do [to address] those larger questions. 

What can institutions with significant resources, including the Church, do to help people who are struggling?   

I think there are many sides to that answer. One is to help people in their suffering immediately. But we don’t want to just treat symptoms. We want to go to the core issues. I think a place like Trinity Wall Street, or even Trinity Portland here, we have the opportunity through our relationships, and through our membership, to work on all aspects of that. I think we don’t want to just treat the symptom, but when someone is hungry, they need food. In fact, the way we study scripture now, in Jesus’ time, most people were worried when they woke in the morning if they would have enough food to get through the day. If someone’s in that place, that’s the first step. If someone’s reflecting on their theological perspective and how it might influence the world, then we can meet them there. So we go first to the people who are in need, and then we want to start networking, and leveraging, and using the kind of advocacy that can change the root causes. They need to work hand in hand. 

You spoke publicly during Occupy Portland. Did that experience have an effect on your theology?

I’m sure it did. I was in New York and walked through Zuccotti Park probably a couple of weeks after Occupy started, and I found it interesting. The issue I have is creating external enemy. So the 99 percent goes after the 1 percent. There’s always someone out there who’s bad, and it’s never me. So one of the concerns I had before speaking here was the reality that we’re all culpable in some ways. And because there was so much anxiety about it, and I had a lot of calls, and people were calling my senior warden because they heard I was going to speak, what I did was I locked into the core values of Trinity Cathedral here, and one of those is inclusion. I’ve worked with people who try to create division so it takes the focus off of them, and I’ve never found that to be a compelling leadership strategy. I think if these problems are as big as people in Occupy Wall Street think they are, then we need everyone working towards a solution. So I locked into the core value here at Trinity of inclusion. I will never lead in a way that tries to find an externalized enemy to build internal cohesion. 

In a newspaper article I read, you paraphrased a familiar quote about how the church comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.     

Well, I think some people come to church because they’re feeling a need, but they don’t know how to fill it, and they don’t know how to meet it, and it’s a vague sense of felt need. We can’t always give people what they think they need. We have to give them what they truly need. And some people need to be challenged. When we look at Jesus, he was constantly challenging people, and most of us are spiritually formed when we rise to a challenge, not when we’re comforted. I think also the church confuses care with sentimentality. Sometimes care hurts. If you go to a surgeon, you’re going to be in pain afterwards, but you receive the care you need to be healthy. So sometimes we push people, and sometimes we comfort them, and it depends on a lot on where they are. 

What does preaching mean to you?    

For me, preaching is proclaiming the good news that Jesus is human. That’s the scandal, that Jesus is human. We all know Jesus is supposed to be God, but how is Jesus human, and how does Jesus link to us as a human? How do we enter the biblical story and connect with the humans that are in there, and how do we find that connection with ourselves, and with others, so that we can become Christ to others, so we can become the hands and feet of Christ? Preaching is about, as my grandfather said, makin’ ‘em think. He’d say: “Bill, when you preach, make them think. Don’t comfort them.” People rise to the challenge. So offer the challenge that they can become more of who they already are. 

How do you see liturgy?     

I see liturgy as the work of the people, and so when they return to church, it’s as if, in my mind, they come back, they restore their breathing with God. We all sing the same hymns. Hymns are designed to get us to breathe at the same time. We enter a similar sort of space together, a similar shared experienced. We rest for a bit, and then we go back out. And so there’s this rhythm of coming home and going back out, coming home and going back out. A lot of people define liturgy as the work of the people, so the liturgy continues well into life. It begins Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. Then we come back Sunday for that time together and go back out. So the liturgy here mirrors the liturgy in real life, which is the work of the people. There’s a rhythm to it. 

So there’s a purpose of liturgy that’s actually related to the mission?

It’s completely connected to the mission. The hope is to nourish towards mission work. The liturgy, in my mind, it’s Grandma at Thanksgiving dinner, bringing the family back home, making sure they’re fed, and then go back out. Go back out, get to work. Maybe the most important part of the liturgy is the dismissal to head back out into the world. 

A couple of years ago, during Lent here at the Cathedral, you had a Radiohead liturgy. What can you tell us about that in terms of experimental liturgy?

We have someone in the parish here who is gifted at looking at popular culture, and especially musicians, and seeing and hearing God’s voice there. It’s essentially Lessons and Carols, with the music of Radiohead, then with some reading. It might be inspirational scripture, it might be poetry, but it unlocks the spirit of the song and it makes the song available to the listeners spiritually. Then there’s more music, and then more reading, then more music, then more reading. We call it an alternative liturgy, and it’s a way for us to see that God is in everything, including popular culture. That’s an Anglican core value that we speak in the language of the people. 

Your personal story begins right outside of Chicago.    

My grandfather delivered me, and then he went down the hall and delivered my cousin 45 minutes later. So I’m part of a family, and that’s part of my life story—that he was there and brought me into the world. I’ve admired him ever since. I had the chance to be with him on his deathbed, and so it was sort of that the rhythm of life was there.

He was a physician, but also had a farm, and loved to work on the farm. He loved to work, and he didn’t worry about other people playing. So I got to play while he was working. Now I see my role in the parish as rector as the one who does the work so others can play. I see the parish a bit like the farm where I’m working hard and making sure things are okay, but I’m hoping that others will play, and will open up to who they are and then express that in the world. 

You mentioned today that you are not a cradle Episcopalian.

The town I grew up in, Western Springs, Illinois, had a large United Church of Christ, and so my folks joined the church when many other young families were moving in, and they’ve been friends ever since, and their kids are my friends. So we all grew up in the United Church of Christ. It was a wonderful parish. They’ve recently been studied by the Lilly Endowment because I think 35 members have gone on to be ordained. It’s a place where people distinguished “call.” So I was born to a very faithful family. We went to church regularly in the United Church of Christ, and I loved it. 

Then I went on a camp where I went ten years to the American Youth Foundation—five years in Michigan, five years in New Hampshire, and went on a canoe trip for three weeks, and had three days solo. It was on that solo time, in 1976, that I met God personally. Now, I didn’t hear any voices, I was just on the river. I drank the river water, it was very clear, it was clean. Later upon reflection I saw that the river was a symbol of abundance. It wasn’t raining, but the river flowed. It was a mile wide. I could drink it. It was a symbol of God’s love and God’s abundance. So after that, at 15 I thought, well, how will I reorder my life? So I started studying scripture. 

My friend’s father was a Methodist pastor. I saw how their family lived and I thought being a pastor’s family would be a great way to raise children. So part of my call to ministry has been a call to a family. 

I went off to college at University of Colorado and studied religious studies. I took a winter off to ski, and then I went right to Yale Divinity School and graduated after three years, and at the end of that time my grandparents sponsored me to go on a spiritual pilgrimage to the Orthodox Church—Russia, Georgia, and Armenia—for three weeks. It was that liturgical worship, along with all my Episcopal friends at seminary, that brought me into the Episcopal Church. When it was time to get ordained, I went back to the United Church of Christ, just to make sure I wasn’t running away from anything, and found that my true home is in the Episcopal Church. It’s been a wonderful expression of my faith since then. 

You’ve been a priest for more than 20 years. What’s the best part about being a priest?     

The people. You know, the people I’ve met are wonderful. The opportunities I have every day to meet people, and to go to some of the deepest places of their hearts. They come in and they share their lives, and they share their challenges, and I get to see how strong they are in the face of those challenges. It’s an incredible opportunity. 

You said that the idea of family was an important influence in your deciding to become a priest.     

Well, my wife is my spiritual partner. As soon as I saw her, I fell for her, fell in love, and I’ve been in love ever since. She’s wonderful. She has a deep wisdom, and we share our life journey together. It’s been a wonderful expression of love to be married, and to be able to minister. Two people who are very important to us are our children, Sarah and Kyle. Kimiko and I see ourselves as cultural bridges. Our parents were at war together, against each other. Now, we’ve been married 25 years and our kids are beautiful, and our parents now share grandchildren. I hear Japanese in my home and I also hear English, and it’s a wonderful opportunity to be a world citizen, and to do that with a person I love is just an incredible, incredible opportunity. 

You’ll be the first rector in 42 years at Trinity to have children who are teenagers. That seems like a great opportunity to shape your ministry at Trinity.     

Well, it will be interesting to see how that turns out, won't it? Our daughter and son are both key to my ministry. They’re a significant influence on how I see the world, on how I see the church, on how effective the church is or isn’t with young people. So I will bring all of that, and you will hear their voices in my sermons, because they influence me greatly. It will be fun to bring them into this adventure together. 

A multi-generational congregation has to be something you’d want to build.

Yes. I think if you think of church on Sunday morning, it’s one of the only places where the generations meet. It’s critically important to figure out programming so the generations can meet each other, and learn from each other. Part of the job of the church is to bring in the next generation. There’s only been about 80 generations in the church. Eighty times is not enough to learn how to do something. So we’re still new at this, and we have to have generations teaching generations, and it’s not just the oldest generation teaching the younger generation. The younger folks have something to teach, as well. I think it’s one of the only opportunities in America today to have generations teaching each other, in church on Sunday morning. 

People always want to know how a busy person kicks back and relaxes.    

I relax all the time. If you’re with people that you find fascinating, then life itself is relaxing. So I like to be with people. I like to read. I like to be with my family. In New York I love to walk out near the rivers. I mean, an island between two rivers for someone who met God on a river, it’s perfect. 

You and your staff have treadmills all over this office. How did that happen?

We find that being up and on our feet is a great way to be engaged with the world, and with ourselves, and so we’re pretty active here. It’s just a lot easier to get things done when we’re standing up, and sometimes running, and we spend a lot of time on the treadmill when we’re in our offices. It’s also more healthy for us. Someone gave us a great gift, a generous gift to do this, and it’s a way to show stewardship of the body. 

It’s a big project to move 3,000 miles across the country with teenagers. Do you see that as a challenge?     

I’m completely excited about it. First of all, my wife and I used to date in New York City, so there’s a touchstone for us, and to go back to that is actually really fun, and to be able to show the kids Connecticut where we met will be fun. Recently I asked my son that same question. He said: “Dad, it’s not about all the problems, it’s about the adventure.” I think we all see it as an adventure, but we’re not unaware of the challenges. So we’re working on those. 

You’ve accepted the call to Trinity but you don’t arrive until September. So I wonder, do you have a vision for what you’ll do or do you just sit back awhile and discern?     

All of the above. So, yes, I think a lot about what could be done, but I always do that. I’m always imagining next steps and possibilities. I love to brainstorm with people, so I’m doing a lot of brainstorming right now. But what I’m most eager to do is arrive and learn the language of the parish, and test my dreams against other people’s aspirations and hopes. One of the things we say here is that we never start a new ministry unless there’s a champion for that ministry, unless there’s leadership for it. Imagining a dream is not enough. Linking with people who are the hands and feet of Christ to do the ministry is critical. So I love to imagine it now, but I’m also curious about where that will go, and what people are excited about. I’m really curious to meet people and get working with them. 

What are the theologians or the Bible passages you keep coming back to?

It changes for me. Lately I’ve been focusing on Jesus at the Last Supper when he says to his disciples, “I do not call you servants any longer; but I have called you friends.” The power of friendship and the power of that kind of love has been where I’ve been focused. It’s just really invigorating to think about all the new friends who are in New York, and part of the ministry that I will soon join. 

How does the Bible inform your ministry?    

I was trained to read scripture as a preacher, to see the feelings of the people in the passage, and to connect with them on that level, the affective level. A lot of my preaching is to try to read scripture, and then translate it for today, but to keep the same feeling. So if it’s confusion in the scriptural passage, then it’s confusion now. How do we translate that? 

I took some notes during your sermon yesterday and I noticed that you mentioned, paraphrasing here: The only tool for ministry you have is you.     

Well, I think that there’s some clergy who actually think that ministry is about performance. I think ministry is about relationship, and the only way we can relate is from myself to yourself, and if we can build that kind of authenticity, I think it releases people into confidence, to becoming more than they have before, and to reaching out, and to minister with boldness. I really do not think we have any other tool for ministry other than ourselves, and that we need to challenge ourselves to be deeper and broader than ever, and then to offer that to the world.

Why is the Church still relevant?    

I think it’s a place where people come and make meaning. I think of a parish church as a meaning-making factory, that there’s no meaning inherent in the pews, or even in the altar. We give it meaning and we learn how to do that, we teach our children how to do that, and they teach their children. It’s a generational work to go to our deepest, most important values, to understand them, and then to pass them on. I think it’s very relevant. In fact, I think the Anglican time is coming because we’re so comfortable with the current culture. That’s an Anglican core value, I think our time is coming, and we’re getting ready to really shine. 

Do you remember how you felt when you got the call from the Trinity vestry, telling you that you were the choice to be the 18th rector?     

I felt elated. It was wonderful to be called to New York. We have good friends there, and there’s a wonderful opportunity there. So I felt elated. I really feel called to this ministry, and I’m really excited to be joining it. 

Is there an issue that you consider to be a particular challenge?

For me, challenge is the most interesting part of life. Challenge is what raises us, and brings us up to our full selves. So I’m frankly looking forward to the challenges. I really am. They will be part of the joy. Now, I know that part of the work will be to increase my capacity to bear pain. That’s what leaders do without being reactive. So I know it will be painful at times, and difficult, but even that is part of how we move forward. So I’m all in. I’m excited. 

What was your impression of Trinity before you received this call?

As a priest, I’ve always held Trinity Wall Street in high esteem, but I’ve never thought, oh, I can’t go on without Trinity Wall Street helping me. I’ve always seen Trinity as a partner, as an interesting place doing wonderful things, but I’ve never connected it to my own viability in a parish somewhere. So I see Trinity that way—that Trinity will be a partner with other parishes. Interestingly, I’ve never partnered with Trinity in my own ministry. I’ve never thought that Trinity could bail me out of a problem, or help me become more viable in the parishes I’m in. I’ve always looked at them as a partner, and I know that Trinity can be a strong partner. Trinity will do things that other parishes cannot do, and that they’ll support parishes in their common life together, and so I hope to continue that. 

I suppose no priest can really totally prepare for Trinity because it’s so unique with its real estate portfolio and its international work.

I find it really exciting. When you think about real estate, it’s about creating home, which is what churches do. It’s stewardship. And then the international side, I mean, I’m in an international marriage, I’ve hobo-traveled through Zimbabwe years ago, sleeping outside in game parks. To be with friends in Africa will be a wonderful opportunity to learn from people. New friends in Africa will be a wonderful opportunity. 

If people back in New York at Trinity ask me to describe the next rector, what should I say?     

I’m a person who’s curious about other people, and who loves to learn about who they are, and what makes them tick. I look forward to coming to New York and meeting everyone in the parish, and learning from them, and going on an adventure of learning with them. What I hope they’ll feel after they know me for a while is that I care for them. 

Why do you feel called to Trinity Wall Street?

I feel like my emotions, passions and feelings link up well with where Trinity Wall Street is, and where Trinity Wall Street is going. I feel very respectful of the work that’s been done there, and really energized by the next phase that’s coming. And I look forward to joining people on what I call an adventure of learning. You know, there’s no rule book that says what Trinity Wall Street will do next. It has to be discovered, and I can’t wait to do that. 

 

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